My Strange Addiction

By Nussbaum, Emily | The New Yorker, August 13, 2012 | Go to article overview

My Strange Addiction


Nussbaum, Emily, The New Yorker


It would be neglectful for this critic to write about the CBS reality series "Big Brother," now in its fourteenth season, without making a troubling confession: twelve years ago, I was a Web watcher. This means that I didn't merely watch "Big Brother" episodes many nights a week--an embarrassing enough revelation--but also online, via 24/7 streaming footage. Each morning, I would stumble into my living room and open my laptop, letting the characters (who were in California, three hours behind) sleep on the screen, like pets. In my defense, I was freelancing at the time. I needed the company.

This might not have been such strange behavior if "Big Brother" had been a water-cooler hit. But it was a flop: the Dutch-created game show, in which contestants spent months in isolation, was a phenomenon in Europe, but its first American season was swamped by "Survivor," a ratings bonanza and the subject of outraged op-eds. "Survivor" starred jocks and was filmed in exotic locations. "Big Brother" starred "hamsters" in sweatpants, caged in a house, forced to memorize highway routes to win treats.

Even worse, the American audience had no idea how to vote. In other countries, the viewers threw out the boring people, leaving those with mood disorders and/or sex appeal. Americans did the opposite: they expelled the troublemakers, who were, early in Season 1, a black nationalist and a bisexual stripper. As a result, the cast members became paralyzed, convinced that they'd be booted if they did anything interesting. One night, I watched enraptured as my favorite character, an introverted Asian-American lawyer named Curtis, brooded over his impending expulsion, then chatted politely with his competitor--it was a subtle emotional heroism that was hardly telegenic. Later, a Midwestern roofer nicknamed Chicken George tried to persuade the cast to stage a mass walkout; you'll have to take my word for this, but those hours of filibustering were amazing to watch live. By then the show's audience was tiny, even counting my fellow Web watchers, with whom I spent hours online analyzing these important events.

Understandably, the producers changed the rules in Season 2. Now the "Big Brother" contestants voted one another off. Alliances formed, including a cruel clique called Chilltown. The Chilltown schemers believed that they were the show's heroes, not its villains--and they were also, in the unedited feeds, hilariously obsessed with ratings, fomenting half-real "showmances" and strutting like roosters. The Nielsen levels spiked, but I was getting too uneasy to keep watching. (O.K., I watched Season 3--but that was it, I swear.)

For fans, the early seasons of reality TV were fuelled by cognitive dissonance: the aesthetics might be ugly and the ethics dubious, but the conversations among viewers went amazingly deep, into psychology, politics, and the nature of human intimacy--talk that was more resonant than anything triggered by the polite scripted dramas that surrounded them. This never quite justified the cruelty, so I turned away. But apparently the cookies in my Web browser's cache were baked by Proust, because twelve years later, when I reopened the feeds, all the old giddiness flooded back. Ooh, there was the miserable house! The hideous "veto" medal! There was the robotic host, Julie Chen, and the dumb competitions, with contestants jumping on spinning beds like toddlers on bath salts. Naturally, I got addicted right away.

Part of the fun of watching the later seasons of a half-demonic, half-fantastic series like "Big Brother" is that the contestants are themselves fans of the show--in this season's premiere, one hamster tells another that he saw him on TV when he was ten years old. Four characters are past contestants, including Mike Boogie, the cretinous wingman of Chilltown, now the series' professor emeritus with highlights in his hair. A newbie arrives self-branded, announcing, "I look like your typical Southern gay. …

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